Raise your hand if you’re tired of dystopian young adult books. Look, our lives are better for The Hunger Games, but as the years stretch on from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, present offerings seem more and more diluted; when your dystopian setting is a head-scratcher, you know it’s time for a change.
And we’ve got four big ideas for how YA—which has cartwheeled from vampire/werewolf/human love triangles to kid deathmatches—could change, drawing from current trends in books, pop culture, and society as a whole. Check out our theories and feel free to argue (or share your own!) in the comments.
Few things are quite as romantic as the world falling apart around you, a corrupt government trying to kill you, and your life being in constant danger—at least, that’s the vibe we get from dystopian hits such as Divergent, which features Tris and Four falling in love amid revolution and ruin. Recently, other YA novels such as Matched, The Selection, and Delirium have taken the dystopian elements of popular series like Divergent, and hyped up the romantic stakes.
Now an enemy, “love” becomes a foreign concept, and these dark futures have a variety of solutions for eradicating the organic emotion: computer generated ideal mates, elaborate courting ceremonies, and (gulp) extraction. These books take “first love” to the next level with teenagers discovering the forbidden emotional and fighting to keep it alive. While this current trend still clings to its dystopian roots, there’s a clear desire for YA books with a fresh take on both dismal futures and the thrill of new love. The Delirium and Matched series have already wrapped up, and with Kiera Cass’ Selection trilogy concluding this May with The One, I think readers will be clamoring for more. —Kelly Gallucci, Editor
Virtual reality cyberpunk
Part of recognizing a trend’s popularity is to acknowledge where it’s succeeded before. (After all, memes are self-repeating.) Vivian Vande Velde’s 1991 novel User Unfriendly (and its 2002 quasi-sequel Heir Apparent) keenly predicted today’s obsessions with Second Life and the commodification of virtual reality (like Facebook’s recent acquisition of Oculus VR). Now, YA is ready to refocus on cyberpunk. Whereas it can be hard to swallow teenagers magically being the most resourceful characters in dystopian YA, they truly are the best fits for VR stories: They’re the first generation to entirely grow up with this tech. Non-YA genres already get it: Consider Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, where the person best equipped to locate an MMORPG’s Easter egg is 18 years old; and the teens in Douglas Rushkoff’s graphic novel A.D.D. Adolescent Demo Division, who grapple with VR worlds and the damaging neurological effects that come with them.
Dystopian YA is built on the paranoia of fringe movements disrupting and warping society, sending us back to pre-tech times. But let’s be honest: Paranoia about the artificial intelligences, that already run our lives, outthinking us and then stripping us of our agency is a lot more realistic. James Dashner, who switched from writing dystopian YA ( The Maze Runner) to his new VR-centric novel The Eye of Minds, sums it up well: Modern technology’s leaps and bounds “just seems less like fantasy, and more like, ‘When is this going to happen? When is virtual reality going to be so realistic?'” —Natalie Zutter, Editor
Fairy tale retellings
Everyone knows Rapunzel with her hair so long, Peter Pan who never grows up, and all the classic stories read to us at bedtime or Disneyfied on our TV and computer screens. But what if Cinderella were a cyborg? Is the “evil stepmother” really so evil? What exactly happened between Peter Pan and Tiger Lily? Books like The Lunar Chronicles, Bewitching, and Tiger Lily are already answering these questions, and I love it. A pair of fresh eyes on a story is what keeps these tales enduring.
With books like Second Star (a surfer version of Peter Pan), Cruel Beauty (Beauty is sent to kill the Beast), and Dorothy Must Die (evil Dorothy ruling Oz) out this year, it’s safe to say this trend is picking up speed. What’s next? Maybe an activist Little Mermaid who fights for a cleaner ocean? OrRobin Hood… in space? The possibilities are endless. —Sam Adler, Editorial Assistant
For whatever reason, female protagonists more or less dominate dystopian YA novels. All you have to say is “Katniss Everdeen,” and people immediately know what kind of girl you’re talking about. In fact, you could make a pretty strong argument that Katniss has no male counterpart in YA right now, speaking strictly in terms of popularity and name recognition. Girls rule, but that doesn’t mean male readers don’t want protagonists of their own gender to look up to.
To that end, there’s a new crop of apocalyptic YA novels that may be poised to even things out. In Emmy Laybourne’s Monument 14 trilogy, narrator Dean introduces the reader to a world plunged into chaos when a massive hailstorm hits, forcing him and other teenagers from his school bus to hole up in a Walmart and wait out the disaster. Similarly, Andrew Smith’s new novel Grasshopper Jungle features Austin Szerba, a 16-year-old boy grappling with confusion about his sexual orientation while the world is literally ending around him. Smith’s apocalypse comes complete with massive praying mantises who are alternately violent and amorous, which sets a compelling backdrop for Austin’s own identity crisis.
We love a complex female protagonist, but variety is the spice of life and we think the recent surge in male YA protagonists may just be indicative of the next big thing. —Elizabeth Rowe, Editorial Intern